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7.2.3: Vajrayana Buddhism

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    Vajrayana Buddhism has predominated, until very recently, in numerous subsects within Tibet (and, since the Chinese Communist takeover in 1959, in the Tibetan diaspora in India, Europe, and the United States).39 It is also a major sect of Buddhism in Japan called Shingon, founded by Kukai (774-835).40 Significant aspects ofVajrayana have also been incorporated intoJapanese TendaiBuddhism, founded by Saicho (767-822),41 and, by way of Shingon and Tendai, into Japanese Shugendo mentioned above. In early Medieval times it had a strong presence throughout Southeast Asia and in China (called Chen-yen in Chinese), though no longer. Along with Theravada and Mahayana, it too originated in India and its original scriptures are in Sanskrit. Those scriptures basically consist of the Mahayana scriptures plus an additional group of scriptures called Tantras and their commentaries. Vajrayana is an outgrowth, if not a subtradition, of Mahayana. It has a certain inclusive orientation about it that seeks to include and assign some placeif only a subordinate or preliminary place-for the teaching and practice of other forms of Buddhism. However, what it regards as the supreme teaching and practice of Buddhism, associated with the Tantric scriptures, is esoteric: it is not, it contends, for the insufficiently developed mind to understand or apply. The Tantras purport to come directly from teachings the Buddha passed on secretly to his most advanced disciples, and they are so written that their true meaning is obscure or unintelligible to the uninitiated. Among the subsects or subtraditions making use of the Tantras in Tibet, these teachings have been given somewhat different emphases and interpretations.

    In their pursuit of Enlightenment Vajrayana Buddhists, in addition to conventional Buddhist practices, may make use of esoteric rituals, sacred implements, gestures (mudras), sacred word-sounds (mantras), elaborate visualizations aided by visual diagrams (mandalas), magical spells, rigorous physical ordeals, and extraordinary psychic powers under the strict guidance of a spiritual guide (guru or lama) who is himself a master of these techniques. All are said to be designed to lead directly to the realization of Buddhahood. 42 In effect, they endeavor to enlist the whole panoply of the powers of the lived body, the imagination, and the unconscious-including one's deepest fears and highest ideals-into the struggle for liberation from desire and suffering. As in many esoteric mystical traditions, there is assumed to be a correspondence between this microcosm of the inwardly felt lived body (a mystical physiology) and the macrocosm of the universe. The Vajrayana pantheon of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods, and demons (going far beyond the Mahayana pantheon), each with their feminine consorts and taken together with them to represent the whole array of cosmic powers at large in the universe, is believed to correspond to a corresponding array of psychic powers within oneself. By the aid of appropriate esoteric techniques typically inolving visualization these powers are harnessed, as it were, to carry one along the path to Enlightenment-yet ultimately in a way that one realizes that they too are empty (Sunya), they too lack separate being.

    The Tantric adept aims to transcend the passions not by destroying them or leaving them behind but by experiencing them from a pure perspective, entirely liberated from their control. Because different personalities have different dominant passions, a specific course of practice for each person is prescribed. Presupposing the Prajna-paramita teaching that Samsara and Nirvana are not separate and therefore that all things are pure to the pure of mind, things that to non-Tantric Buddhists seem impure or taboo might be engaged in by some Tantric Buddhists under specific conditions and with a specific frame of mind in the process of overcoming a dominant passion. For example, under carefully controlled conditions, at an appropriate stage of development, and under the direction of a spiritual guide, a form of ritual sexual intercourse is practiced in some Vajrayana traditions to overcome the dominant tendency in persons of a hostile temperament.

    Vajrayana Buddhism in this way brings into full play the ways of sacred rite and shamanic mediation in connection with that of mystical quest.43 Certain subtraditions of Tibetan Vajrayana uphold the paradigm of a freely wandering wonder-working practitioner not bound to celibacy-e.g., in Tibet, the Nyingma-pa sect, allegedly founded by Padmasambhava in the latter eighth century, and the Kargyupa sect, founded by Mar-pa (1012-1097), whose most popular saint is its Second Patriarch, Milarepa (1040-1123). Typical among the adepts of these subtraditions is a readiness to utilize the shamanic powers developed by means of the practices discussed as well as others to help, heal, and assist others who face otherwise unmanageable difficulties in their lives. (On the surface, at least, this seems to be much the sort of thing going on in Japanese Shugendo.) For example, some Tibetan monks regularly work with people at the point of death to help them meet death with equanimity and to conduct the "transmigrating ego" during the transition time to avoid dangerous traps for the unwary and to attain a better rebirth. So also, due to their knowledge of ritual and competence in its performance, Vajrayana monks--certainly in Tibet and to a lesser extent in Japan-often assume priestly ritual and ceremonial functions on behalf of communities, families, and individuals.

    Despite this strong integrated emphasis upon mystical quest, sacred rite, and shamanic mediation in Vajrayana Buddhism, at least aspects of the ways of reasoned inquiry, right action, and devotion have their place as well, depending somewhat upon the specific subtradition of Vajrayana. Some subtraditions, notably Tibetan Gelukpa, as mentioned above, have placed a high priority upon conventional learning and study and their monasteries have served as universities, teaching secular subjects as well as religion.

    This page titled 7.2.3: Vajrayana Buddhism is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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